The dust storms were getting worse.
People in town called them “black blizzards.” That’s exactly what they were like, too, like snowstorms made of soot and ash. One minute, the sky would be as clear as glass. The next minute, the dust would billow up so high that it blocked out the sun. It would go from noon to midnight just like that, right in the middle of the day. The wind would pick up out of nowhere, first whistling, then moaning, then shrieking.
“Like a banshee,” was how Papa called it. “Man, listen to that,” he would say. “Wind’s screaming like a banshee.”
Once I asked Toby what a banshee was. He said it was a type of musical instrument, like a guitar. “That’s a banjo, dummy,” I said. He just smiled a little. I think he knew the difference. He was just teasing me.
Myself, I thought the wind sounded like people screaming, thousands of them, as if the Devil had opened up the gates of Hell so we could have a listen. It shook the walls and the windows like there was something outside that wanted to get in. Toby always said I was being silly, that there was nothing out there but some dust and wind. I wasn’t so sure though.
Earlier in the summer, our neighbor Mrs. Williamson was walking home from the grocery store with her two boys when a storm whipped up and trapped them outside with nowhere to go for shelter. Mr. Williamson found them the next day in a ditch on the side of the road, buried up almost over their heads in sand. The dust had filled their mouths and noses until they couldn’t breathe anymore. It must’ve been a terrible way to die.
Because of what happened, Papa made it a rule that Toby and I had to stay inside our fence when we were playing. He was worried we’d get caught out in the fields somewhere and wouldn’t be able to get back to safety in time. Whenever he sensed a storm coming, he’d hustle me and Toby into the house just as fast as he could. Once the house was shut up tight, there was nothing we could do except wait until the storm passed.
That’s when I heard the whispering.
It was during the storm last week that it happened. I was laying on my bed, just staring at the ceiling and listening to the sound of the dust hitting the glass. It made a shushing sound, like when Mama was asking for quiet. I didn’t mind that sound so much. It was kind of nice. Calming. But then the wind started howling and wailing, throwing big buckets of sand against the windows and making the whole house shudder. It was terrifying. I pulled the covers over my head so I didn’t have to hear it so loud.
“Annnnnnabel …” a voice whispered. It was a grainy, hissing sound, like it was coming from the sand itself. I wasn’t even sure if it was really a voice at all, or if it was just the wind brushing the glass.
I threw off the covers and sat up, thinking maybe it was Toby messing with me. He wasn’t there though. The bedroom door was opened just a crack, and I could see him in the other room, laying on the floor in front of the fireplace. He was making chalk drawings on a piece of butcher paper, not paying attention to me at all. Mama and Papa were out there too, sitting at the kitchen table playing Gin Rummy. There was nobody in the bedroom but me.
I crawled on the bed over to the window, then moved the curtain and tried to peek out. I couldn’t see anything, just my face looking back at me, like a mirror. I had to cup my hands around my eyes and press them right up against the glass in order to see through. I expected the window to be cold, but it was almost hot to the touch. I forgot that the sun had been beating on it just a few minutes before; that it was still day, even though it was dark as night.
Normally, I would be able to see the whole yard out the window, from the windmill and the outhouse to the fence way out back. But this time, the dust from the storm was so thick that I couldn’t see any of that. All I could see was black.
Then, just for a second, the wind let up a bit and I saw … something. I’m not sure exactly what. It was a person shape. A woman, I thought, on account of what looked like a long white dress she was wearing. She didn’t have a face, just a black hole where the mouth would be, wide open like a scream. The sound coming out of her mouth wasn’t just one person’s scream, though. It was like someone took all the nightmares in the world and was playing them back on a record player all at once, messing with the speed to make it go faster, then slower, then faster again. It was a sound I heard more with my mind than my ears, like it was coming from the middle of my brain and out through my skull, instead of the other way around.
Then the storm picked up again and blew harder than ever, and the woman – and the sound – was gone, just like that, disappeared back into the dust. There was nothing left but the doleful wail of the wind.
I must’ve made a noise like I was scared when I saw her, because Papa came rushing into the room. He looked concerned.
“Anabel?” he said. “You okay?”
“Yessir,” I answered right away, even though I wasn’t.
He looked at me for a long second, then nodded his head and started to close the door. I don’t know what, but something made me call out to him before he was gone.
He opened the door again. I could see Mama behind him, still at the kitchen table with her playing cards in her hands, peeking in at me.
“Who was that, outside in the storm?” I asked.
Papa got a curious look on his face and walked over to the window. He pressed his forehead close to the glass so he could see outside.
“I don’t see anybody,” he said.
“She’s gone now.”
“She?” Mama appeared in the doorway.
“She had a white dress,” I explained. I didn’t want to mention the woman’s face, or her horrible, gaping mouth. “She was …” I paused, searching for the right word. “I think she was screaming.”
Mama took a sharp breath. Papa gave her a look and shook his head, just a bit. Then he sat down on the edge of the bed next to me and combed his fingers through my hair. It felt nice.
“There’s nobody out there, Sweet.” That was his nickname for me: Sweet. Because I was sweet like candy. “Probably just some wash blowing around, caught up on a post. Right, Mama?” He looked up at her.
“Right, baby,” Mama said to me. “Just the wash. The storm came on so quick, I forgot to bring it in.”
Papa stood up and walked over to the door with Mama. He wagged a finger at me like he was fake mad. “You rest up now, hear? The storm’ll be over soon. Then we’ll have some cleaning up to do.”
I nodded and laid back down on the bed. As Papa pulled the door shut, I saw Mama grab his hand and squeeze it real tight.
She said something to him, but I couldn’t hear what.
A few hours later, the storm blew over and we came out of the house. It was still daytime.
Toby and I swept the dust from the porch, then went out back to clear the dirt piled up against the outhouse. As Toby started sweeping away the sand that had built up in front of the door, I dropped my broom on the ground and sprinted off across the yard.
“Hey!” Toby shouted after me. “We ain’t done yet!”
“I’ll be right back!”
I ran around the side of the house, out of sight. I wanted to see the wash Papa had talked about, but I didn’t want to say why. What was I supposed to tell Toby? That I saw a ghost outside the window? That there was some lady out in the storm who didn’t have a face, just a mouth? That her scream was like a million dying voices inside my head? No way. He’d laugh himself silly.
I ran over to the clothesline where Mama usually hung our laundry to dry. The posts were leaning to and fro. Some of the lines were so slack that they drooped halfway to the ground. That didn’t matter to me right then. What mattered was that they were empty. Every single one of them. There wasn’t any wash. Not on the lines, not stuck to a post. Nothing.
Toby came around the side of the house, holding my broom. He tossed it at my feet. “You’re supposed to help me finish,” he complained.
“I was only gonna be a minute. I just had to check something real quick.”
Toby shook his head. “There’s no wash, Anabel. There never was.”
“What do you mean?” I asked, playing innocent. How did he know I was looking for wash?
Toby checked to make sure nobody was around, then motioned for me to come closer. He parked his broom under his arm, reached into his back pocket, and took out the butcher paper he had been drawing on during the storm. He handed it to me.
I unfolded it and looked at what he had drawn. It was a picture of our house. I recognized the porch. The windmill. The outhouse. Outside in the yard, he had drawn a picture of a woman in a white dress. Her arms were raised towards the sky. She had no eyes or nose, just a mouth. Wind was flowing around her in great big swirls.
I looked up at him.
He put his finger to his lips like shh. “I saw her too.”
“Who do you think she is?” I asked Toby.
It was the next day. We were out in the yard, playing tic-tac-toe by scratching out X’s and O’s in the dirt with sticks. I was winning, like always. I brushed away the lines with my foot, then drew a new set. I made my O in the top right corner.
“Maybe it was Mrs. Keeney, out for a walk,” he said.
“In a storm like that?” I looked at him like he had dust for brains. “No way.”
“Yeah. I guess not.” He drew an X in the middle box.
We played the game for a bit, trading turns in silence. I won again, then cleared and re-drew the lines. I had an idea of who it might be, but I wanted to see if Toby would say it first. When he didn’t, I decided to bring it up myself.
“You think it was Mrs. Williamson?” I asked, trying to sound casual.
Toby laughed as he made his X. “Um, no. Probably not.” He looked up and saw that I wasn’t smiling. “Wait, you’re serious?”
I shrugged, then made an O with my stick. “Could be.”
“Anabel, she’s dead.”
“I know. But still …”
“You’re saying it was a ghost out there? Uh-uh.” He shook his head, then made another X. “Besides, ghosts look like people.”
“Not always, they don’t,” I said, feeling defensive. Toby was such a know-it-all sometimes. I blocked his X’s with an O, drawing it extra big out of spite.
“Nah, it wasn’t a ghost. I guarantee it.”
“What makes you so sure?”
“I just know, okay?”
Toby looked over his shoulder to make sure nobody was listening. “You promise you won’t tell?”
“Swear to God.” I crossed my finger over my heart.
He lowered his voice to a whisper. “I heard Mama talking to Papa about what we saw.”
“Okay. And …?”
“And she didn’t say it was a ghost.” He paused for effect. “She said it was a banshee.”
There was that word again. Banshee. But I still didn’t know what it meant. “What’s that?” I asked. “And don’t tell me it’s a dumb guitar again.”
“I don’t know,” he said. “But let’s go find out.”
Toby and I crept into the house, aiming to swipe Papa’s dictionary when nobody was looking. Papa had taken his truck into town to get groceries, so we knew he wouldn’t be a problem. It was Mama we had to worry about. Even though the dictionary belonged to Papa, Mama knew we weren’t supposed to be messing with it when he wasn’t around. It was Papa’s only good book, aside from his Bible. He didn’t want it to get ruined.
Much to our relief, Mama wasn’t in the house when we came in. She was out on the back step, sneaking a quick cigarette before Papa got home. That meant we had a few minutes before she would be back inside.
I followed Toby into our parents’ bedroom. He glanced out the window to make sure Mama was still outside, then pulled the heavy dictionary off the shelf by the door. It was covered in dust. Toby blew on it, sending great big swirls into the air. The dust particles hung in the beams of sunlight streaming through the window.
Toby opened the dictionary to the B section, then turned the pages until he found the right one. He traced his finger down the page and ran it under the definition as he read. His eyes got wide. He looked up at me, then back down at the page. His skin turned pale.
“What?” I asked. I tried to nudge in next to him. “What does it say?”
He closed the dictionary before I could get a look. “Nothing.”
“Toby!” I complained. I tried to grab the dictionary away from him. He turned his body to block my grasp. “Give it!” I tried to reach around him, but he turned the other way. “Give it!” I said again, more loudly this time.
“Shh!” he hissed. “Mama will hear!”
“Hear what?” Mama’s voice said from behind us.
Toby and I turned. Mama was leaning against the bedroom door frame, her arms crossed over her chest, watching us. Toby tried to hide the dictionary behind his back, but it was too late. She had already seen it.
“Toby Joe,” she said in a low whisper. She shook her head like she was ashamed of him. She wasn’t like Papa – she didn’t get loud when she got angry. She got quiet.
Mama pointed at the floor in front of her feet. Toby walked over to her, his head hung low. She held out her hands. Toby put the dictionary into them. “Anabel, put this away, please.” She held the dictionary out to me. I took it from her. It felt like it weighed a thousand pounds. “And you,” she said to Toby. She reached out and grabbed the top of his ear. “Let’s go.” He whimpered as she dragged him out of the room. I felt bad. He was going to get a whupping.
I looked down at the dictionary in my hands. Even though I was risking a whupping too, I couldn’t let Toby get away with not letting me see what he found. I dropped the heavy book on the bed and quickly flipped it open, ruffling through the pages until I found the one I was looking for. I checked over my shoulder to make sure Mama wasn’t watching, then turned back and read the definition.
“Banshee,” I whispered, mouthing the words as I read. “A spirit in the form of a wailing woman who appears to members of a family as a sign that …” I trailed off. I felt my stomach tighten. Icicles formed down the center of my spine. “That one of them is about to die.”
“Toby!” I shouted. “Where are you going?”
Toby ducked under the fence at the edge of our property. He didn’t answer.
I could hear Papa’s truck tires crunching on the gravel driveway out front. His door creaked open, then slammed shut. Mama’s voice sounded faint as she greeted him. “We need to talk,” I heard her say.
I ran out the back door after Toby. “Wait up!” I yelled to him. The heat rising from the ground made him look like a shimmering mirage in the distance. I sprinted across the yard to the fence. My shoes filled with dirt as they sunk into the drifts of dust piled up against the posts. I ducked between the crossbars, then ran through the field towards his shrinking figure.
“L-Leave me alone,” Toby said, as I caught up with him. He wiped at his eyes with the cuff of his sleeve. Dust smeared across his tear-streaked face. His chest hitched with a sob.
“Where –” A sharp gust of wind snatched the word from my lips, causing me to lose my breath for a moment. “Where are you going?”
“California.” He spat into the dirt. “I’m running away. I hate this place.”
“You can’t run away.” I looked out across the endless Oklahoma plains. There was nothing as far as the eye could see, except dirt, dirt, and more dirt. Town was a fifteen-minute drive away, at least. Walking there would take hours. He would never make it before nightfall.
“Can too,” he insisted.
“How? You’ve got no money, no clothes. Nothing.” The wind whipped again, sending a stinging blast of sand into my face. Dust raced across the landscape. “Come on. The wind’s picking up,” I said. “We better get home.”
“I ain’t going home.”
“If Papa has to come after you, then you’ll really be sorry. He’ll tan your hide for sure.”
“So what? Let him come. He already hates me.”
The blazing sun began to dim. I squinted up at the sky. A dirty haze was filtering the daylight into an orange-brown glare that felt more like sunset than mid-afternoon. “A storm’s coming, Toby.” I was starting to feel worried. I looked back towards our house. The dust in the air made it look sepia-toned, like an old photograph from Grandma’s picture album. “We’re too far.”
“Then go home, if you’re so scared.”
“Uh-uh,” I said. I wasn’t going to let him paint me as a coward. “If you’re running away, then I am too.” I matched his stride step-for-step, marching with resolute determination. We’d both go to California, then, if that’s how he was going to be.
Toby stopped and look at me like I was crazy. “Don’t be stupid, Anabel. Girls can’t run away. Besides, you ain’t old enough. Now, leave me be and go on home.” He turned and started walking again, faster this time, leaning into the gale that had begun blowing steadily across the field. He raised his arm over his eyes to protect them from the sharp sting of the sand.
“Toby!” I cried. I felt rooted to the spot. My dress flapped around me in the wind. I didn’t want to go any further, but he just kept walking. “Toby, wait!” I couldn’t believe he would just leave me like that. Tears welled up in my eyes, as much from the dust as from anything. My chest felt tight. “Toby!” I cried again. He didn’t respond.
A gust of wind buffeted me so hard that it knocked me back a few steps. That got me unstuck. I ran after him, my eyes half-closed against the wind. I felt like I was running uphill through molasses. The flying sand needled my skin with a million tiny pinpricks. I could feel it forcing its way between my lips. Grit crunched between my teeth.
Finally, I caught up with him. “Stop!” I pleaded. I grabbed his arm, then hung my weight from his wrist to try and slow him down. “You can’t leave!”
“Get off!” He yanked his arm away.
I fell on my rump, then scrambled to get up. I chased after him and tried to grab him again. He dodged out of the way.
“I said, go home!”
With the last word, he pushed me with both hands. I stumbled backward, tripping over a divot in the sand. My ankle rolled under my weight. A bright white explosion of agony raced up my leg. I cried out in pain.
“Oh, for Christ’s sake,” Toby said. “Stop faking.” He kept walking.
I fell to the ground and clutched my ankle as I tried to catch my breath. Tears spilled from my eyes and slipped down the sides of my face. “I’m not!” I sobbed.
Something about the tone in my voice must have sounded serious because Toby turned around and trudged back towards me. He rolled his eyes with exasperation, then squatted down and picked up the hem of my dress to look at my ankle. His expression changed. “Shit.”
“Is it broke?” I asked. My voice quivered. I felt like I might throw up. Wind blew my hair across my eyes. I pushed it aside so I could see Toby. The look on his face was grave.
“Here, sit up,” he said. He pulled me into a sitting position. Then he looped my arm over his shoulder and grabbed my wrist. “I’m going to help you stand. On three. One … two … three …” He tried to hoist me to my feet. Pain flooded my senses.
“Stop! Stop!” I cried. “I can’t.”
He quickly lowered me back to the ground. “Okay, okay. Sorry.”
He unwound my arm from around his shoulder and laid me down on my back.
I gazed up at the sky. The sun flickered like a dying matchstick overhead, its light diffused to a dim, dirty circle. I rolled my head towards our house, hoping to see the headlights of my father’s truck cutting through the gloom, but there was nothing but dust. I couldn’t see the house at all. It was gone, obscured by the impenetrable storm.
An involuntary shudder rocked my body. I could feel my pulse throbbing in my shattered ankle as it swelled. My teeth began to chatter, despite the heat baking off the dirt underneath me. There was sand in my mouth, on my tongue. I tried to spit it out, but it just dribbled in a muddy streak down my cheek.
“Go get Papa,” I whimpered. A blast of dust filled my nostrils as I tried to suck up the snot leaking from my nose. I started coughing, a barking sound that I felt deep in my lungs.
Toby knelt next to me, his hands on his thighs. His shoulders rose and fell as he gasped for breath. He coughed hard, then hocked up a dark brown ball of phlegm.
The wind began to howl, a sorrowful keening sound that rose and fell and rose again.
Toby shouted over the noise. “I don’t want to leave you!”
“You have to!” I shouted back.
I coughed again, harder this time. Something tore in my chest.
And then I saw her.
She appeared behind Toby seemingly from nowhere, materializing out of the storm, her white, tattered dress rippling behind her. Her face was featureless except for the yawning chasm where her mouth should be. She had no lips, no teeth, no tongue. There was nothing inside but an infinite blackness, darker than the darkest sky.
She beckoned to me to come closer. I knew what she wanted. She wanted me to join her, to become one with the storm, with the dust, with the wind. To fly with her unbounded across the plains. To rise and twist and soar, higher and higher, high enough to shroud the sun, to dampen the light, to turn day into night.
The banshee’s wail rose inside my head again, just as it had before, a nightmare chorus that swelled into a mournful crescendo of sorrow and loss. A scream rose in my mind, becoming one with the keening vibrating through my skull.
Toby must have noticed that I was staring at something over his shoulder because he started to turn towards the banshee. I wanted to warn him, to tell him not to look, but my voice was trapped in my tightening throat. He turned around, then froze. His body went rigid. I couldn’t see his face, but I could sense the light leaving his eyes. I felt them go cold and flat and black, like how a cow’s eyes look when it realizes it’s bound for slaughter. A look of acceptance. Resignation. Surrender.
Toby laid down on the ground next to me. The dust had already started piling up against my body, spilling down the sides of my dress in a thousand tiny avalanches. He draped his arm protectively over me, then leaned his head against mine. He closed his eyes. I did too.
“Let’s just stay here for a minute, okay?” he said. “Let’s just rest.”
I nodded, too weak to respond. The weight of sleep weighed heavy on my chest. My breathing came in short, shallow gasps. Dust filled my throat and choked my lungs.
The light was gone now. The day had succumbed, leaving only the spiraling, suffocating dark. There was no oxygen, no breath. There was only the dust. Only the storm.
“Do you hear it?” Toby whispered, his voice full of wonder. His arm slipped to the ground. His body grew still.
I listened. I couldn’t hear anything but the dissonant echoes of the banshee’s shriek in my head.
But then, something remarkable happened.
As I drifted into the darkness, I realized that the banshee’s wail wasn’t a wail at all – it was a song. A concerto. A timeless symphony, the most intricate and extraordinary ever composed. It was the sound of infinity itself.
And it … was … breathtaking.
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